The spirit of such phrases as “knowledge is power” by Sir Francis Bacon and “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” by Abraham Lincoln were brought together in 1953 in legislation by Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown, Democrat from Stanislaus County. The legislation, called The Ralph M. Brown Act, Government Code 54950, obligates governing bodies to follow particular measures to ensure meetings are properly noticed, open, and available for public comment. It sustains the power of the people with their local legislative agencies. Legislative bodies retain the respect and trust of the people by following it.
The preamble of the act states, “The people do not yield their sovereignty to the bodies that serve them. The people insist on remaining informed to retain control over the legislative bodies they have created”
Those bodies include city councils, boards of supervisors, and district boards as well as other commissions and standing committees of a local government.
An open meeting means that all actions and discussions are done where all can see and hear, if they chose. The Brown Act requires the public to have a 72-hour notice of all regular meetings, and it must be posted in a publicly accessible location. This notice include the place and time as well as minimal agenda item descriptions. The descriptions must tell enough to allow a citizen to know what the item is about and to know if it is merely being discussed or acted upon. Requirements also exist for “Special” and “Emergency” meetings like a 24-hour and 1-hour notice respectively.
Any citizen may request in writing to receive agendas or board packets. A nominal fee may be charged to cover costs. Many organizations post agendas on the internet for greater public access like Marysville Unified School District.
Other institutions, such as the Yuba Community College District, do not post agendas online. Donna Johnson, Administrative Assistant to YCCD Chancellor, explained that the board agendas for the district are not posted via the internet because citizens can call and request copies. They are, however, physically posted at all the district’s campuses.
At the meeting the public may request any materials that a majority of the body receives without delay. The only exception would be materials exempt under the Public Records Act like confidential documents.
The public may comment on any agenda item at the designated time. Comments on non-agenda items can be made as long as they are within the jurisdiction of the organization. These non-agenda comments may have time limitations in order to keep the meeting orderly.
The Yuba College Board of Trustees limits comments to persons filling out a card and to speaking for five minutes with no longer than 20 minutes on any one subject. The City of Wheatland limits comments to three minutes. On most agendas the restrictions are made known, as well as the fact that the governing body can only give limited response and no action can be made.
Bill Harrison, 68 year resident of Wheatland often attends City Council meetings and makes public comments. “So many people would bellyache about things, but they wouldn’t go to meetings to say what they didn’t like,” Harrison said. “I go to call them on it.”
Harrison is currently trying to get a stop sign moved for wheelchairs to have access on a sidewalk.
The most challenging part to an open meeting is closed session. The Brown Act acknowledges that governing bodies must have some discussions out of public view, therefore there are specific allowances with specific restrictions and specific guidelines for agenda descriptions.
Common topics allowed in closed session would be personnel: appointment, employment, evaluation of performance, discipline or dismissal; litigation: legal counsel on pending or active cases; labor negotiations: represented and unrepresented employees; and real property negotiations: meeting with negotiator to discuss terms of property transactions.
YCCD and other school districts would occasionally have student expulsions as a closed session item also.
The agenda items must name the negotiators, name the title of the employment being discussed, identify the property, and if known the litigation case number. Discussion is strictly limited to the properly noticed closed session agenda items.
Don Schrader, Yuba County Supervisor of the 4th District said he can’t imagine going into closed session without legal counsel. He has been in meetings where counsel has admonished members that they were straying off the approved subject matter. He doesn’t understand how a body can meet to discuss litigation without counsel present.
When asked to share his thoughts on the Brown Act Schrader said, “I have no problem with it other than it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t apply to State bodies. They can do whatever they want.”
Schrader thinks it’s important for officials to follow The Brown Act above reproach. Otherwise, it will taint their future decisions in the eyes of the public.
Johnson said she is responsible for making sure agendas and their items are within the Brown Act. Over her past 17 years with the YCCD she keeps current with training, confers with legal counsel, references the Ed Code, and keeps The Brown Act itself close at hand.
Responses and remedies available to citizens who witness Brown Act violations are to simply notify the agency, send a correct and cure letter, seek the help of the District Attorney and seek remedies via civil litigation. The cure is often to cease the violation.
Sometimes the agency may have to vote again on an action item in order to make it legal and to allow public comment. Sometimes this can cost the agency money if it involves illegally dismissing an employee and the cure is to reinstate with back pay. It can also involve reimbursing attorney fees. Officials who knowingly violate the Brown Act have committed a misdemeanor prosecutable by the District Attorney.
The Attorney General of California has issued a 14-page pamphlet with the major highlights of the Ralph M. Brown Act available online at http://ag.ca.gov/publications.
The full 56 page version can be found at www.leginfo.ca.gov